Solitude is essential for developing deep thoughts and a sense of self

— Photo by Luca Galuzzi -

Stillness predominates in the Sahara, writes Paul Bowles in “Baptism of Solitude.”

In the April 14, 2017 edition of the “Independent,” an article appeared by Katie Foster called “Children as young as 13 attending ‘smartphone rehab’ as concerns grow over screen time.”

Anyone who’s lived in the United States for more than an hour knows the United Kingdom is not alone in this “fight.” There are tables in every food court in every mall in the country where four or five young adults are sitting, eyes glued to the screens of some electronic device withholding presence from their comrades.

I have long wondered what the quality of silence is like in their homes. Is there any? Do members of their family or any family have a time and place for solitude? Are periods of solitude encouraged? Do family members read books of a meditative nature that help them sort life’s plaguing details?

I am especially aware of these issues at the moment because I’m reading a book of essays by the expat American writer Paul Bowles, “Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-1993.”

Bowles died in 1999 at 81 and, though an inveterate traveler, called Tangier, Morocco his home for more than 50 years. As a person attentive to what is, he began to absorb the bare bones reality of Africa, especially the silence one finds upon entering the Sahara.

In describing that silence Bowles hints as why those addicted to media-screen realities refuse to adjust their lives to include solitude. It’d require going cold turkey.

In a piece he wrote for “Holiday” in 1953 called “Baptism of Solitude,” Bowles says that, whether a person has gone into the Sahara once or 10 times, the first thing that commands his attention is the “stillness.” In that “hard stony place ... an incredible, absolute silence prevails.”

Even in the busy marketplaces, he says, “a conscious force [exists] which [resents] the intrusion of sound.” The underlying silence is so great that noise is minimized and eventually dispersed. Even the sky at night joins in; it “never really grows dark” but remains “an intense and burning blue” as if silence will not let the pilgrim go.

Then Bowles points to an inevitable conflict. He says, once you step outside “the gate of the fort or town” you’re staying in, you either “shiver and hurry back inside the walls, or you will go on standing there and let something very peculiar happen to you.”

The French have a phrase for the latter; they call it “le baptême de solitude,” the baptism of solitude.

It’s an experience of aloneness but has nothing to do with loneliness because loneliness presumes memory. Out there in that “wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares,” Bowles says, “even memory disappears.” A person doesn’t know if he’s coming or going.

Then a strange interior “reintegration” occurs and “you have the choice of fighting against it, and insisting on remaining the person you have always been, or letting it take its course.” It’s the scriptural paradox: Unless the grain of wheat dies, it will not have life but, if it accedes to reality, it will live and multiply.

Bowles is speaking about the Sahara, of course, but he’s also speaking about the experience of solitude and silence anywhere. When a person encounters silence he’s not “quite the same as when he came.”

William Wadsworth, the poet, spoke of his need for this way of being. Social intercourse with friends and neighbors might be fine, he says in his famed poem “Personal Talk,” but:


Better than such discourse doth silence long,

Long, barren silence, square with my desire;

To sit without emotion, hope, or aim,

In the loved presence of my cottage-fire,

And listen to the flapping of the flame,

Or kettle whispering its faint undersong.

The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who was one of the 20th-Century’s champions of solitude, was more prescriptive. He said, when silence and solitude are absent from our lives, we never become the person we were meant to be. The latter requires a trip to the desert.

In his “The Silent Life,” Merton says all people “need silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally. When that inner voice is not heard, when man cannot attain to the spiritual peace that comes from becoming perfectly at one with his own true self, his life is always miserable and exhausting.”

No one can remain happy for long, he says “unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of his own soul.” He treats it as a law of nature.

How would you begin to explain such a process to one of the screen-addicted teens at the mall? One study said half the teens in the United States send 50 or more texts in a day, while one in three send more than 100; that’s 3,000 a month. The numbers seem high but the study noted as well that 15 percent of the teens surveyed send more than 200 texts a day. Twelve texts an hour?

The screen. A study by Common Sense says that, when added up, teens are logged onto a screen of some sort nearly nine hours a day, with those in the tween category logging in at six, almost as much as they sleep at night.

This oblique disregard for solitude manifests itself in how teens do homework. They have the TV on, and take breaks to text or network in some fashion. One study says three-quarters of teens listen to music while doing homework.

What can be the quality of such work? What can be the depth of thought? Maybe it’s better to ask: How much better could that person’s work be if done with greater thought and concentration, in studious solitude?

Psychologist Ester Buchholz in “The Call of Solitude” links solitude to creativity. In an article she wrote for “Psychology Today,” she says, “Research on creative and talented teenagers suggests that the most talented youngsters are those who treasure solitude.”

By delving into the depths of the unconscious, solitude helps a person “unravel problems ... figure things out ... emerge with new discoveries ... unearth original answers.”

On this point, Merton keeps hammering away. Without solitude, he says, a person is “no longer moved from within, but only from outside himself. He no longer makes decisions for himself, he lets them be made for him. He no longer acts upon the outside world. But lets it act upon him. He is propelled through life by a series of collisions with outside forces. His is no longer the life of a human being but the existence of a sentient billiard ball, a being without purpose and without any deeply valid response to reality.”

Bowles saw how sentient billiard balls begin to carom when silence is rejected. People cling to a phantasm of who they are rather than the person they are meant to be.